Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day in our closets

I hope you're spending this Memorial Day in a healthy balance of reflection, relaxation and indulgence in grilled foods.

Military service and work in the defense industry has influenced the way women dress for generations. Here's a look back, courtesy of Flickr: The Commons.

 Nurses at a US Army base hospital in France, WWI

Douglas Aircraft Company, California, WWII

Assembly and Repairs Department at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas, WWII

2nd Lt. Army Nurse, WWII

Saturday, May 29, 2010

What we wear matters - a response to Robin Givhan

I promised you that we would discuss Robin Givhan's controversial review of Elena Kagan's style. And so we shall. I'm sure by now you've read it, and read numerous responses, reviews and rehashes of it. If you haven't, maybe start with Fishbowl DC

In a way, it's the reaction that surprises me - this article is precisely what we would expect from Robin Givhan right now. It's what she was hired to do. She wrote a practically identical article about Sonia Sotomayor during her hearings. And although she makes comparison to the "utterly ordinary" style of Samuel Alito and the other male justices in the Kagan piece, there was no article about his fashion choices or body language. She wrote a similarly analytical (although significantly more flattering) essay on Nancy Pelosi when she became Speaker. These are prominent women in Washington and intense scrutiny is the name of the game.

I don't necessarily agree with Givhan - I don't think Kagan's style on the Hill was deliberately drab, nor do I think her appearance is the sole reason for persistent innuendo about her sexual orientation. And Givhan's suggestion that there would be "nothing profoundly inappropriate" about wearing platform stilettos in the halls of Congress other than the fact that it would fly in the face of expectations for a political figure is patently absurd. As if perception didn't matter in politics. Givhan has always had a profound disdain for what Washington considers appropriate to wear in any given situation, on no particular authority other than that she is a fashionista and not a Washingtonian.

But it's tough to blame a fashion critic for being, well, critical about fashion choices, even when she's wrong. ["Bland equals responsible. Matronly equals trustworthy." Please.] I do think Kagan could have made better choices for herself in some areas. Her jackets were too boxy for someone so famously short. Her jewelry, as I've said before, is in serious need of an update. And if you're wearing a skirt, you do need to keep your knees together. It's not like she was at risk of a Britney Spears-style flash, but any recruiter would tell you that body language matters in a job interview. Like it or not, if her look is drawing this much negative attention, there's a problem. And that is where Givhan and I sort of agree. In writing about Nancy Pelosi in 2006, she said this:

Attire is not the sole province of women, but in comparison with men, it remains an area in which they have the greater number of choices, more flexibility, the heavier burden. The public has already settled on the defining characteristics of a powerful man: He wears a dark suit that is well tailored. He pairs it with a crisp white shirt, and if he wishes to underscore his authority, he wears French cuffs. He wears a four-in-hand -- a bow tie if he wants to emphasize his eccentricity. He tries to look dignified and serious. But what does a woman of great power look like?
It's a valid question, and one that still hasn't been figured out. Pelosi has found one way, Condoleezza Rice found another - a way that Givhan clearly prefers, as she seems to spend so many column inches wistfully suggesting a return to that chic sexuality. With an Obama cabinet and administration full of so many prominent women - Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Kathleen Sebelius, if you've been reading carefully, you don't really need another list - we can see that there might be as many ways of dressing a powerful woman as there are powerful women.

People ask me all the time why I write this blog. Am I trying to be funny? Am I trying to be snarky? Do I want Robin Givhan's job? No, none of those. What we wear matters. What we look like communicates a message to our viewer, and women in politics don't need one more reason not to be heard. Bad clothes and sometimes "good" clothes can draw attention that distracts from our words simply because we are women. Making good choices about what we wear will help us get our point across. At least we are getting to a point where people are not just noticing but expressing outrage at the blatant sexism that makes a woman's wardrobe newsworthy in a way that a man's is not.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Homework assignment

Oh, yes, we're going to talk about Robin Givhan's article on Elena Kagan in the Washington Post. But I'm having a pretty busy week, so have a look at the article, and Senator Klobuchar's remarks below, and our previous coverage of both Kagan and Klobuchar, and then we'll talk.

Extra Credit: Read Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead by Madeleine Kunin.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Geometry of Lisa Murkowski

Senator Lisa Murkowski chose a boldly patterned dress for a speech to the Oceans Law Policy Conference last week (you might want to skip to minute 3:00 when she starts):

I like this dress on her a lot more than I thought I would. The reason it works is all in the geometry - of the print and of the senator's face. The rectangles in the print very nicely echo the shape of her face. I do think the contrast of the colors in the print is too strong for her, but in general she's doing better!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Carly Fiorina goes soft around the edges

Carly Fiorina recently posted a new campaign video that shows her with a significantly different look than she has shown at rallies in the past:

The soft shapes of the sweater tied around her shoulders, the gentle contrast of brown to peach, even the blending of the colors in her clothes with the chair and the flowers next to her. This is not the Carly we have seen before, in sharp monochromatic color palettes and bold contrast from her surroundings. In fact, it reminds me of Michele Bachmann's Glinda the Good Witch appearance on Larry King a few months ago. If she's going for a softer look, she got it. But I wonder if anyone will buy it? Carly Fiorina is known for nothing if not being as tough as nails. And the floral bouquet is pretty over the top. What do you think?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Who says white can't be tough?

Here is Senator Mary Landrieu at a Senate Homeland Security committee meeting last week:

I love this look. I love the bold use of white (before Memorial Day!) with more white underneath. I love the multi-strand necklace with organic texture. I even love the minimal makeup, although as usual, I wish she would put some lipstick on. In fact, if there was one tip I would give to all our women serving in Congress across the board, it's more lipstick. I'm sure most of them start out the day with lipstick, but it never makes it all the way to a committee hearing. Maybe we need to popularize a more permanent product with this group, like Benefit Cosmetics Benetint Mini Lip and Cheek Stain.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blondes in pink

Senator Claire McCaskill and Secretary Hillary Clinton have very different styles, but similar coloring, and recently they both chose outfits in pale pink.

Secretary Clinton at a meeting with the British foreign minister:

Senator McCaskill at a Senate hearing on Iran sanctions:

Neither one of these women is very well served by this pale shade of pink. They look sort of doughy, with clothes blending into skin blending into hair.

I really believe that everyone can wear every color, it's just a matter of finding the right shade for you.  For women with coloring like these two (hair AND skin) a mid-range pink would serve them better. Here are some items they could try:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Military style to present financial reform

Senator Susan Collins chose a military-inspired look to present her financial reform amendment last week:
This look is successful, even as the senator walks some fine lines. Red, white and blue color combinations can be tricky, but this works because of the proportions and the shades involved - the blue is dark and the white is minimal. The prominent buttons that fit this jacket into the military trend are the focal point - her jewelry is minimal and there are no other accessories.

Just like Maxine Waters yesterday, the key is to keep it simple.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bold look, bold accessories

Rep. Maxine Waters chose a conservative gray jacket and a very bold silver necklace for a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the proposed Comcast-NBC merger:

This necklace is a difficult piece to pull off, but Ms. Waters does it beautifully. It works for her because:

  • She has prominent facial features in proportion to the rest of her face. A prominent nose, full lips and big eyes balance out this bold pattern just below her face.
  • The rest of her outfit is very simple. The jacket and blouse are in neutral colors with very simple lines, allowing her necklace to become the focal point.
How do you pull off your favorite bold accessories?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

On the waterfront, but too casual

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has run into some trouble again with her clothing choices for a public appearance. She made remarks outdoors on the EPA strategy for the Chesapeake Bay watershed:

Ms. Jackson did make a good choice of color here. Chartreuse is not for everyone, but her coloring takes it well. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is a fan of this color too.

The color is the best part of this jacket. This style of jacket is far too casual to begin with - flap pockets, shank buttons and cotton fabric are all hallmarks of a traditional denim jacket, which is one of the most casual garments you can wear out of the house. The contrast of the style with the suits and ties of men in the background robs her of the gravitas she should have in this situation.

The style of the jacket also demands to be worn unbuttoned, which makes her look much wider in the torso than she actually is. The wide ribbed texture of the shell she's wearing underneath amplifies that effect even further.

Here's what I would have chosen for her instead:
I suspect that part of the reason Ms. Jackson errs on the side of too casual sometimes is a desire for simplicity in dressing, so this outfit keeps to a minimal number of individual pieces. She also usually gravitates to feminine items. So a dress with a jacket is a great choice. The fly stick pin is a nice nod to the setting, too. A white jacket on television? Being outdoors means natural light, which won't cause the reflectivity problems that incandescent light indoors would.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Too Many Circles for Elena Kagan

Whether or not you were expecting President Obama's announcement of Elena Kagan as his nominee for the Supreme Court, today's speeches were par for the course. Unfortunately, so was Ms. Kagan's jewelry:

This necklace and earring set is clearly a stand-by for the Solicitor General, worn frequently at her televised appearances. They're just not doing her any favors. The stark round shapes fight against the straight lines in her features and emphasize the roundness of her chin. The necklace is also a bit too long - if it hit her collar bone higher up, where the neckline of this dress falls, it would be in better harmony with the shape of her face.

She looks vibrant, healthy and even a bit more feminine than usual, in part because of the warm green color of her jacket and in part because of a warmer make up palette, both of which bring color to her face.

For now, Supreme Court hearings are not televised, but Ms. Kagan's comments in the past seem to indicate that that could change. I hope she's ready.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Outside, hairspray is your friend

Natural light makes us all look great, doesn't it? But when we venture outside for a chance at the sunlight, we also have some risks to contend with. One of those risks is wind. Michele Bachmann learned that the hard way in her National Day of Prayer message:

Rep. Bachmann's usual flip hairstyle certainly already involves some styling products to create. But this is one of those times when she should have made sure she had a last minute check on her look. A little hairspray applied at the part would have done the trick.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Patterns on television, part 3

Secretary Clinton ran in to some problems with the weave pattern of the jacket she wore for her Mother's Day address to State Department employees. She looks all wavy:

You may have noticed, though, that this is the same jacket she wore for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference press conference last week, with the collar unbuttoned:

She doesn't look all wavy here. Same jacket, so what's the difference?  The distance of the camera.  When the camera was close to her for her recorded Mother's Day message, it was able to pick up individual lines in the weave of the fabric, but not so finely that they don't run together as she moves.  For the press conference, the camera was further away, and even zoomed in to put her at approximately the same size in the frame, it doesn't pick up each of those individual lines - they blend together into a more uniform shade of gray.

I still wouldn't say you can wear a glen plaid with the cameras at the back of the room, but it does give you a little more flexibility.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Contrast trim blazer: A new trend?

Last week, Claire McCaskill wore a black blazer with white trim for a Senate hearing on Medicare and Medicaid:

The soft curves of her lapel nicely echo the curves of her hair and face, for an effective, complementary look.

The bold contrast is also quite memorable, so I notice right away when Carly Fiorina wore a similar jacket on CNN:

It's similar, but not the same. In fact, it's different in a very important way: instead of a softly curved lapel, this lapel is much more angular, just as Ms. Fiorina's face and hairstyle are more angular. So it works for her in the same way Senator McCaskill's does. Trade jackets and it doesn't work anymore, even though they are (at first glance) so similar.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Distracting Accessories: Different causes, similar results

Accessories have a special power for women getting dressed. As we've seen over and over, they can add a much needed accent of color or style, or they can distract so aggressively from our message that we almost can't be heard.

Last week, we saw two examples that were distracting for different reasons.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords slipped up by adding too many accessories in one outfit:

Dangling earrings and chunky necklace and flower brooch and cuff bracelet is definitely too much. [As an aside, she has also changed her hair color and style so significantly since her official portrait was taken that I nearly thought I had misidentified her in the video. The flower brooch, though, has remained the same.]

Meanwhile, Senator Susan Collins made a different but equally distracting choice with this two-strand necklace:

There are two reasons why this necklace is distracting. The first is that the shorter strand is too short for her face shape. The second is that the bold shape of her jacket collar probably requires no necklace at all, or at least one that is more delicate and lighter colored.

With accessories, less is frequently more.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Kathy Dahlkemper in too much of a good thing

Back in February, we saw Kathy Dahlkemper make very successful use of animal print in her wardrobe. I encouraged you to learn from her example by sticking to two fairly simple guidelines:

1. Use a print in an abstract scale.
2. Keep the proportion of your outfit in animal print minimal.

These were useful guidelines, which Rep. Dahlkemper illustrated perfectly. So I cannot explain to you why just two months later, she violated both of them:

This jacket is so distracting that I actually checked her official biography to make sure she doesn't have a hobby of big game hunting that I didn't know about - searching from some reason, any reason why she would choose to wear this. It's so unfortunate, because the congresswoman clearly had something to say about defense spending, but she's being drowned out by her clothes.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Claire McCaskill in black and white and red all over

This week's Goldman Sachs hearings got plenty of play on late night television in part because of some of the colorful language the senators chose to quote in their questioning. One result was that a Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee hearing ended up getting a lot more exposure than usual. Claire McCaskill looked powerful in black, white and red:

Senator McCaskill gives a great example of how blondes can wear bold colors by use of color blocking. Her black jacket is broken up by the white facing on the stand up collar and red cuffs. The red top is broken up by the chunky white necklace. Creating variation in this way keeps her from being overwhelmed by color saturation. This look is very successful for a high-profile day.